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Persisting racial bias
Jon Taylor shares his observations on the causes of the permanent racism in U.S. society
  ·  2020-06-10  ·   Source: NO.24 JUNE 11, 2020
Demonstrators take to the streets in New York City on May 31 in protest against the police killing of George Floyd, an African American, in Minnesota (XINHUA)

On May 25, George Floyd, an African American, died after a policeman knelt on his neck while arresting him. Floyd's death ignited anger and chaos across the U.S. over the unfair treatment of African Americans by the police. In an interview with Beijing Review, Jon Taylor, Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography and professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio, shares his observations on the causes of the permanent racism in U.S. society.

Beijing Review: There have been incidents of excessive use of force against African Americans by the police from time to time. Why is this problem so prevalent?

Jon Taylor: In U.S. society, the racial bias has been pervasive and implicit, quietly seen and heard in polite company away from those who might object. The political and social environment in the U.S. is as volatile as it was in 1968. I was 8 years old at the time and recall well the unrest of that year. I was a precocious kid who watched the news and read newspapers. I vividly remember the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the riots in the streets of Chicago, and my own mother protesting the Viet Nam War. I recall attending a school that was 100 percent white. In fact, I wouldn't encounter an African American until my junior high school was desegregated in 1973.

Violence, discrimination and the killing of African American citizens are a reminder of just how much the historical legacy of racism and bigotry remains a part of current realities in the U.S. This legacy demands that we must strive to correct long-term injustices found in U.S. society.

But about the police's racial bias, there is a lot of debate on this. Despite a lot of recent scholarly research on police brutality, we still really have no idea whether police violence toward African Americans is fueled by racial prejudice. And that has consequences. In the U.S., African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. For African American women, the rate is 1.4 times more likely. While the data demonstrates that there is a definite difference in the use of excessive force by the police, it's still difficult to arrive at a solid scientific conclusion on an implicit bias against African Americans and people of color.

The reasons for this are varied, from the race of the officer and encounter setting to the use of force by the victim toward the police. But all said, people are rightly concerned with how to eliminate police prejudices against African Americans and people of color.

Traditionally, the federal government's response has been reactive, often deferring to local authorities. When there is a case of police brutality, it tends to be handled locally. However, if a case is particularly egregious or nationally visible, the Justice Department will investigate and potentially recommend federal prosecution. That approach does not result in systemic changes. Rather, it tends to be singularly prescriptive in nature with the filing of federal charges of civil rights violations in addition to any state and local charges. In large part, this is the result of the U.S. Constitution's deference to state and local policing authority.

Other racial and ethnic minorities also face discrimination in the U.S., such as the racism against Asian Americans amid the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. What are the root causes of this chronic problem?

There are a number of different forms of racism, bias and prejudice in the U.S. While those elements exist in almost all societies, the American experience has been colored by a 400-year legacy of slavery, a civil war, decades of apartheid and violence, and the lingering aftereffects of this legacy: inequities in income, employment, housing, healthcare, education, and a repeated pattern of police brutality.

The root cause is historical in nature. Fear of the other, the unknown, of those who weren't born and raised in the West, with their mindset, religions and culture. Language and even food were contributors.

Asian Americans have long been considered as a threat to a nation that for decades promoted a whites-only immigration policy. Asians from China, Japan and elsewhere were called the "yellow peril" and unfit for citizenship in America. Chinese immigrants were welcomed to help build the railroads in the U.S. West and then saw xenophobia lead to passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law in the U.S. that barred immigration solely based on race and placed a 10-year moratorium on all Chinese migration. Viewed later as the "model minority" after World War II, Asian American inclusion has been used to undermine the activism of African Americans, Latinos, indigenous peoples, and other groups in the U.S. That hasn't stopped the rise of racism, xenophobia, and assaults against Chinese and other Asians in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

As COVID-19 continues to rage in the U.S., black people are hit disproportionately hard. Why is that?

The latest overall COVID-19 mortality rate for African Americans is 2.4 times as high as the rate for whites and 2.2 times as high as the rate for Asians and Latinos. African Americans face a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19, mostly due to their concentration in urban areas and working in essential industries. Only 20 percent of black workers reported being eligible to work from home, compared with about 30 percent of their white counterparts, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute study.

Those risks are also significantly exacerbated by racial inequities in healthcare, including nearby hospital and critical care closures and caps on Medicaid and Medicare. Even in the aftermath of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), African Americans are twice as likely to lack health insurance compared with their white counterparts, and are more likely to live in medically underserved areas, where primary care can be both meager and expensive.

What do you think of President Donald Trump's handling of racist incidents and crimes since he took office?

Trump has a history of inflaming racial tensions. One could say that he's a political opportunist who is happy to fan the flames of discontent among his core supporters. Is he racist or a white supremacist? I don't know what's truly in his heart. That said, actions and words matter. From blaming undocumented immigrants for crime and engaging in moral equivalence that played down the violence of the far-right participants in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to dubbing COVID-19 a "China virus," it's difficult to ignore Trump's prejudice and veiled racially tinged rhetoric.

How could the George Floyd protests affect the presidential election in November?

I think that it's going to have a profound impact on the election. It will likely energize voters already dissatisfied with Trump, the pandemic-induced economic calamity, and the general direction of the country. Voters will judge Trump by his response to the violence erupting across the country.

Combined with a high degree of voter dissatisfaction with his ineffective leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, it sets the stage for a win in November for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. However, Biden needs to express his strong support for the protests against inappropriate police treatment of African Americans while also speaking out against the increasing violence. The danger for Biden is that Republicans have been quite successful in using law and order as a campaign issue, dating back to Richard Nixon's defeat of Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

Some U.S. politicians have condemned the violence during the current protests in the U.S., but they supported violent protestors in China's Hong Kong. Do you think they hold double standard?

Of course they hold double standard. A number of U.S. politicians, particularly senators Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton, have opportunistically supported the unrest and chaos in Hong Kong. Conversely, when the shoe is now on the other foot, they actively oppose the same phenomenon within the U.S., demanding the use of force to end the violent protests.

When civil unrest and destruction takes place in a nation that has been singled out by Trump as an adversary, it's laudable and something to be glorified. But when that happens at home, it's labeled an insurrection which must be put down immediately. If it weren't such a serious situation, it would be mildly ironic to note that the very accusations that some U.S. politicians made about China are boomeranging back onto the U.S.

Copyedited by Madhusudan Chaubey

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com

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